Climbing Mexico's El Potrero Chico
When the sun came up, I unzipped the tent fly and looked ahead nothing but limestone filled my field of vision. I followed the wall up, and up, and further up, squinting into the sky. Now I know how Jack felt when he woke up next to the beanstalk.
There's a lot here to amaze. Pitch after pitch rises from the desert floor like rock draperies, pinned way up in the blue sky so that it folds back and reveals over 600 established routes. Because of the variety of fins and walls, there's everything from a grueling, 20-pitch 5.13 monster ("Mi Regalo Favorito") to rapid-fire, 5.8 sixty-footers. Most climbs are in the upper-middle-class range, in the neighborhood of 5.10 and 5.11, at just about any number of pitches. But there's something for everyone on just about every wall.
In awe and envy of the climbers heading into the Potrero to tackle routes like"Space Boyz," on the Jungle Wall (which comprises the south face of El Toro and rises 2,800 feet to the summit), we grabbed our packs and headed for the more humble Buzz Wall. This is the closest wall to Homero's and is home to a handful of two- to three-pitch 5.8s and 5.9s. We spent the morning playing on some of the gorgeous routes, chatting with other climbers, and admiring the view of Hidalgo in the haze. On the rock the holds were solid and varied, and it seemed there were great big, comfortable pockets to rest on at all the right moments. Some of the initial bolts were distanced far apart and didn't seem like they would keep a falling climber from hitting the ground. The rest, however, were solid, well placed, and in good condition.
After lunch, I entered the Potrero. The valley's summits are credited to a gritty group of climbers called Club Alpino Los Diablos. Thirty years ago, with self-stitched equipment and rigged bolts, they conquered the classic summits: the Spires, El Toro, and Las Estrellas. In 1988, a group from Austin began bolting the area, and then in 1993 Kurt Smith arrived and fell in love. "The General," as Smith is known, is largely responsible for completing numerous bolting projects, inspiring several others, and advertising the area to the American climbing community. It caught on.
It felt like I was walking through a city emptied of people, the buildings looming tall, empty, and quiet. Up on the fins, a path leads to a shrine of the Lady of Guadeloupe, where candles burn and tiny tokens of homage are left. Above, the Virgin Wall rises like a cathedral, with three sides of fins rising 2,000 feet and several trad and sport routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.12. The path ended a little further up at a lookout toward the town of Hidalgo below. There was a little breeze, and the air was good.
I couldn't wait to sink my teeth in.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication